Collecting & Dumping Toys

lots of silksDear Miss Faith,
My 2.9 y.o. girl loves to make “nests” in every room of our house. This is something I would normally be fine with, and in fact I recall doing something similar as a child, but my darling girl likes to pile all her puzzles, wooden food, toy trains, stuffed animals, pillows, books, and even the comforters off our beds! I love that she’s engaged and playing by herself, and she has a fabulous time, but I don’t want to spend all my evenings sorting out the mess, and we often get into battles of the wills when I attempt to get her to help clean up (she would rather just leave everything out, of course). How do you suggest I deal with this in a gentle way that will get her to cooperate, and keep the nesting under control?

Dear Mama,
I can completely picture all of that great “nesting” play, but how frustrating it must also be for you to be cleaning up all the time.  At almost three years old, this is something that you can absolutely address.

At this age, one approach that might work would be to change the Rules.  One option for this is to announce that there’s a new Rule in your house, and that is Rule is: there can only be one nest at a time.  It’s up to you whether you want her to put her nest away as soon as she’s done playing with it, or if she can have one nest “in reserve” at any given time, but needs to clean it up if she wants to make another.  Either could work, but both have a few things that would need to happen in order for the new Rule to be successful.

Be Ready to Help Every Time

          Cleaning up big messes can be overwhelming for anyone, and are likely to be especially overwhelming for your daughter, since she doesn’t have any experience doing it.  Your consistency is going to be what makes or breaks the success of this new Rule.  So, make up your mind right now that you’re not going to be annoyed that you have to remind her EVERY time.  Teach her how to ask you for help in ways that make you want to say “yes” to her (“You can say, ‘Help please, Mommy'”), and be prepared to help her every time, for quite a long time.  Even once she learns to do it herself, she will not be able to do it alone every time; she will still need your verbal, energetic, and sometimes physical help, depending on whether she’s tired, etc.

Make It Fun

          As you teach her how to clean up, and as you help every time, be sure to transform the process of cleaning up from drudgery into fun.  Let cleaning up be as enjoyable as possible.   “What?! Puzzle pieces!  Where do THESE go?  Do they go here?”  (put them on your bed).  “Do they go here?”  (put them on her head, etc.)  If cleaning up goes on for ages, pretend like you’re getting really tired, dragging along.  “This is taking SOOOO LONG!  What can we do to help it go faster?”  Then maybe you guys can come up with a fun game to make it go faster: pretend like you’re bunnies hopping each Easter Egg to its hiding place.  Pretend like you’re race cars zooming around.  If cleaning up is fun and engaging too, then it doesn’t have to be a huge chore that everyone dreads.  Soon she can come up with ways to make it fun, too.

Set Yourself Up for Success

          The more things you have, the harder is to put things back when EVERYTHING’s out of place.  So you have a couple of options here: you could limit the types of things that she can use in her nests, or you could limit the number of things that are available.  I personally think that the second option is the easier way to go.  Is she actually playing with the puzzles and the trains and the toy food except to pile them up?  If not, put them in a box and wait till she’s a bit older to get them out.  For the things that she does play with, winnow them down to just one or two of each type of toy, unless she really does interact with each of them individually.  Fewer toys mean fewer things to put away, and I’ve heard again and again from parents that their kids play more deeply when they get rid of the clutter of too many toys.  This doesn’t make much sense until you think about “stuff” like graphic design: if you see an ad or brochure that’s jam-packed with text, your eyes glaze over and not much of it really registers.  Text only jumps out at you if it’s surrounded by space.  This is exactly the same for children: if there is space around a toy, it stands out and is special.  So cut back on your toys and see if that helps.
          You could also start limiting the types of materials that can be used in making nests.  Maybe set up a closet or a dresser full of nest-y materials, but suggest that wooden & plastic toys stay out of the nests.  It’s up to you how insistent you want to be about this, but one big Rule change at a time might be enough; you don’t want to micro-manage her play.  So perhaps they’re just suggestions; you decide what would work best for and makes life easier for you and for her.
          Finally, I think it’s very important that you let her know that the Rules are changing.  “Up till now, you’ve made your nests and I’ve always cleaned them up once you go to sleep.  But now that you’re almost three, you’re big enough that it’s time for us to clean up each nest together.  I’ll teach you how!  So, there’s a new Rule: only ONE NEST AT A TIME in our house, from now on.  I’ll help you clean up whenever you need help; you can just say, ‘Will you help me, please, Mom?’ and then we can do it together.”  Remind her of this new change as many times as necessary, be compassionate that big changes like this take real effort (both for her and for you; self-compassion may be necessary as well), and remember to make cleaning up the nests as fun and inviting as possible.
           Does all of this sound feasible?  Yes, it’ll be work on your part, but now that she’s almost three, she can really start taking a more active role in cleaning up.  Also, remember that you’re “front-loading” the work: putting in a lot of effort now, so that you can sit back and reap the benefits for years to come.
Warmly,    ~Miss Faith


  1. Hi Faith;
    My 3-year old grand daughter is in my care for two days per week for half of each month. I have my home set up as a Waldorf preschool in the basement area, and some playthings are also on the main level. Our garden space is totally like a Waldorf kindergarten natural forest school setting.
    I haven’t opened the childcare, and she is coming on her own. I think there are too many playthings for just one child. Can you suggest how many playthings is too many for one child, then comment on how much is appropriate for a group of 5 children between the ages of 1-4 years old? Maybe you could outline what you used to have set up for your childcare when it was running.

    Mine is in my home, but I’ve set it up as if it was at a separate location. It’s not typical, I think, for a LifeWays childcare, more like a Waldorf kindergarten.


  2. Hi Faith;
    My grand daughter does not help clean up, even when I ask her to. It only works sometimes if I ask her where one thing goes. She might put the one away, but then she is off taking out more toys while I am trying to clean up. She never wants to leave the play space.

    I’ve tried the playful approach to flying the toys on to the shelf, of singing our clean up song every time, or of using the Mr. Tidy puppet to check if things are put away, but she just watches all of that with amusement and still doesn’t participate in cleaning up. Most often she begins taking out other toys, her energy level spiking as she tries to resist the clean up.

    Any suggestions?


    • Hi Joanna, Thanks for writing. If your grand daughter is a young toddler (1-2) then know that watching with interest is a valid form of participation. Perhaps you can hand something to her and then fly HER over to put the toy on the shelf. If your grand daughter is is and older toddler/preschooler (3-5) then in addition to making what you’re doing engaging, lead her into action with action, rather than words. For example, you pick up a doll and hand her doll too. “These dolls are tired and ready to go back to their beds. Let’s go together.” You get a ball and hand her a ball. “Where IS the ball basket?” If there’s only one of something, you can put it in her hands and point her body in the right direction, and then get something for yourself that goes nearby. Often helping kids get started (physically; not talking them into it) is the help they need.

      • Also, I forgot to mention what to do when there’s resistance. Remember that we think of transitions as “things that must be done to get from one activity to another,” but children live in the moment and all they know is that if you announce The End of the Fun, they will resist. To shift this, make sure that 1) every moment within the transition is enjoyable and lets kids be in motion if possible, and 2) for older preschoolers, make sure that they know what they’re looking forward to. “Our lunch is ready, but we’ll need to tidy up before eating. Here’s a ball. I can smell the food, can you?” Once children have a bit of forward momentum, this can help things progress.

        If you get to the point where she’s actively resisting, or pulling out toys that have been put away, you might give her a book to look at while you tidy, or ask her to do something related to the next activity while you tidy. Yes, your eventual goal is to have her help you with tidying, but you have to get out of your negative rituals first, so you can start with a blank slate. THEN your fun games can be better received.

        Does that seem like it can help?

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